Mika Edmondson was speaking with his doctoral advisor, Dr. Ronald Feenstra, at Calvin Seminary one day. His work was winding down, but he had a question. Edmondson asked Feenstra if he was the first African American to receive a doctorate from the school. Feenstra checked the graduation rolls and discovered that Edmondson would indeed be the first.
Edmondson, along with other African Americans and Canadians past and present, did not know he was making history in the Christian Reformed Church. Instead he and others were quietly following Jesus’ call on their lives when they found themselves in Christian Reformed churches and institutions. Let’s take a moment to look back and celebrate some of their journeys.
Dr. Danjuma Gibson was not looking for Calvin Seminary. He worked in corporate life and pastored in a Chicago church for over a decade. Then the seminary offered Danjuma an opportunity to teach on the topic he loved: pastoral care. Gibson knew the cultural pitfalls of teaching in a predominantly white institution. During his synodical interview, Gibson explained, “I told people that I can only be me. I’m an African American male from the South Side [of Chicago]. The embodied desire for me to do well and to prosper is very affirming of the call.” Gibson became the first African American tenure-track professor in the history of Calvin Seminary.
Almost seven decades ago, one man was making history in more ways than simply by being the first African American pastor in the CRC. Rev. Eugene Callender was our Jackie Robinson. While pastoring Manhattan CRC, he conducted the funeral of legendary blues singer Billie Holliday. He mentored a young, struggling writer named Alex Haley to keep working on his novel Roots. He attended several presidential inaugurations and debated Malcolm X in a bookstore. Callender invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak in Harlem in 1957 for the first time. And, by the way, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson sought Callender’s advice on strategies to better the lives of African Americans.
Alongside Callender, James Allen was one of the denomination’s first African American worship directors. Allen battled through his addiction to become the first director of Addicts Rehabilitation Center in New York. The new ministry began in the church, and Allen recorded a few albums with his choir. Allen’s “Walk with Me” was sampled in Kanye West’s single “Jesus Walks.” The late Rev. Stan Vander Klay never forgot Allen’s wisdom on winning African Americans to Jesus as he began preaching at Northside Community CRC in Paterson, N.J., in the 1960s. Vander Klay wrote, “you can make some mistakes, and you will, but as long as you are sincere, people will see it and your ministry will succeed” (Chains of Grace, p. 22).
Henry Washington and his wife, Louise, were looking for a Bible-centered church when they moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago in 1943. In 1950 they started attending Buckley Chapel with their three active boys. The chapel was mostly African American in its membership and leadership. Former pastor Roger Van Harn wrote, “Before Buckley Chapel became Grace (Christian Reformed) Church in 1962, its membership was nearly 90 percent black.” Van Harn noted that the church was one of the first all-African American church councils in the CRC. Because of Washington’s presence as a trailblazing elder in 1962, Grace Church dedicated the Henry Washington Chapel after his death in 1980.
Back in Paterson, N.J., Rev. Sheila Holmes recognized her call to the pastoral life at an early age. She did not know how it would happen for her. Holmes was invited to Northside Community CRC when she was 11 years old. The church affirmed her gifts, gave her opportunities in ministry, and cheered her on.
Sheila later became the pastor of Northside Community in 1998, becoming the first African American woman pastor in the CRC. But the Lord was not done with Holmes’s history-making. In 2011, she became the first African American woman to serve as synodical executive officer, and in 2013, she achieved double “firsts” by becoming the first woman and African American to serve as president of the denomination’s former Board of Trustees (now Council of Delegates).
Reflecting on her ministry, Holmes said, “The biggest challenge in leadership is dealing with people who hold too tightly to controlling their ways or traditions for fear that empowering and trusting your ideas will not go their way. If only people would understand that God is in control—we all have to learn to daily submit everything we are to him.”
As the first African Canadian director of Resonate Global Mission, Steve Kabetu never forgot the words of his great-grandfather—even when English missionaries’ actions were incongruent with the gospel he read. “God was here before you missionaries came,” Kabetu’s great-grandfather told missionaries who were struggling with how to translate the word 'God' in Scripture in East Africa in the early 1900s. “What we didn’t know was that he had a Son.” (Banner, Dec 2014) Steve loves reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ combined with a passion for justice.
Norma Coleman did not know why the Lord had challenged her to move from her home in Washington, D.C., to Grand Rapids, Mich. In 1993, she became the first African American to break the senior denominational leadership ceiling in the CRC. As human resources director, she combined all personnel responsibilities and duties into one office and did so with integrity and professionalism.
Colin Watson was not looking for another job. He was doing just fine living in New Jersey and working at Madison Avenue CRC in Paterson. Watson served as the first African American board president for Christian Reformed World Missions (now Resonate Global Mission) in 2005. It was his work as head of the CRC’s Diversity and Leadership Inclusion Working Group that nudged him to being open for a new task from the Lord. In 2015, Watson accepted an appointment as the denomination’s director of ministries and administration.
Watson said he is “used to being the first person of an ethnic minority in roles that have not been traditionally held by African Americans. ‘I recognize that my ethnicity makes it more inviting to others who want to seek me out, and I welcome that’” (Banner, April 2015).
These and other African Americans and Canadians in the CRC were not looking to make history. Instead they were looking to bring glory to God in their work. Our history is richer for their contributions. Let the church say amen!
Other Notable Firsts by African Americans in the CRC
- Rev. Eugene Callender, first to address Synod (1958)
- Dr. Anton Armstrong, first tenured professor at Calvin College (1981)
- Rev. Richard E. Williams, first pastoral synodical delegate (1988)
- Luther Ward, first synodical elder delegate (Grand Rapids East, 1992)
- Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige, first tenured woman professor at Calvin College (1996)
- Jennifer Parker, first news editor of The Banner (2001)
- Rev. Emmett Harrison, first synodical officer (2004)
- Rev. Angela Taylor Perry, first woman to graduate from Calvin Seminary (2011)
- Rev. Reginald Smith, first board president of Back to God Ministries International (2014); first director of the Office of Race Relations and Social Justice (2017)
Web Discussion Questions
- How many of these notable CRC African Americans and Canadians were you aware of? Are there others you know whose service you wish to celebrate this Black History Month?
- Rev. Eugene Callender has influenced the lives of some recognizable household names yet remains relatively unknown himself. Do you think it would be better to be a celebrity admired by many or to be a relatively unknown influencer of celebrities? Why?
- Rev. Sheila Holmes identified the biggest leadership challenge as dealing with those who hold too tightly to controlling their ways or traditions for fear that things will not go their way. Why do you think people fall into such fears and ways? How do we help all of us submit to and trust in God’s control?
- Steve Kabetu experienced an incongruence between some missionaries’ actions and the gospel he read. How do we as Christians bring the gospel in light of the history of Christian atrocities and mistakes? How might we help non-Christians distinguish between God’s perfect message and his imperfect messengers?